Afghanistan Studies as a subfield within Middle Eastern Studies refracts many of the problems and possibilities at the heart of “area studies.” As the scholars of Middle Eastern societies have long been aware, the boundaries between regions and countries are artificial, reflecting geopolitical impulses and colonial mapping exercises more than intellectual fields of study. Moreover, in recent years, the scholars of the Middle East have contended with how to integrate languages, minority groups, and geographies that might challenge the dominant linguistic, religious, and spatial frames that preside over Middle Eastern Studies. On a broader scale, internationalized conflicts like the “War on Terror,” along with zero-sum game global interventions and confrontations, has created field-changing situations in which many scholars often find themselves at odds or at ease in doing their work. Beyond, but certainly linked to these geopolitical stakes, with the major academic and funding bodies based in the global north, areas studies has long struggled to find ways to engage and remain accountable to and connected with the local contexts in which our work should be situated.
This roundtable is an attempt to offer new orientations toward areas studies by centering the work that has been done in the field of Afghanistan Studies in recent years. Not only historians within the academy, but independent scholars, archivists, and librarians whose work touches on Afghanistan, have long had to navigate multilingual archives, pedagogies, and regions. Moreover, given the outsized effects of US-led interventionism on Afghanistan – effects compounded by climate change, on one scale, and the return to power of the Taliban, on another – those who work on Afghanistan have had to operate within the context of interventionism and ever-shifting ethical and practical research conditions.
Bringing together a group of six historians, independent scholars and specialist librarians to present and discuss the many archives, source materials, themes, and approaches that inform their work on Afghanistan, this roundtable has two major goals: (1) It will provide an opportunity to discuss the current state of research and scholarship on Afghanistan; the archives, digital material, and tools available; and the collective strategies of doing research amid conflict and (in)-accessible environments. (2) Through this discussion, it will invite participants and attendees to interrogate anew what the boundaries of areas studies should be as well as the possibilities for building more transregional and locally-grounded work in the context of shifting political and social landscapes.
While recent years have witnessed a new set of obstacles for historians of Afghanistan, the challenges they present are far from novel. For decades, compounding scales of rupture due to foreign intervention and conflict have made accessing sources in Afghanistan difficult for large periods of time and necessitated alternative strategies for archival work. This observation holds true, albeit for different reasons, for researchers outside of and within Afghanistan. The dearth of certain types of sources and problems accessing them has posed particular difficulties for scholars working on counter-hegemonic histories of minority groups, women, and non-statist perspectives.
In my contribution to this roundtable, I will discuss possibilities and approaches to doing historical work on Afghanistan in the current research environment, drawing on my own experience–and that of my colleagues–studying the history of women’s movements within and beyond Afghanistan. Reading across Arabic, Persian, and Urdu materials has offered me a strategy for generating a new archive of Afghan women’s history in the early twentieth century as well as providing new theoretical ground for scholars interested in the transregion. My brief remarks will touch on the multi-lingual materials that exist for writing Afghan women’s history (travelogues, newspaper articles, and books) and the methods for unearthing these sources in physical and digital archives. When it comes to physical archives, I will detail those that exist outside of Afghanistan and in other languages of the Middle East and South Asia. When it comes to digital archives, I will elaborate on how to use the increasingly sophisticated digital humanities tools to search for key words or individual names in vast compendia of digital space, outlining a method that will be of interest to scholars beyond Afghanistan studies, one that involves reading across the archives and subject headings that have constructed isolated fields of knowledge and obscured transnational connections.
I intend to use these examples and insights to prompt a dialogue on how the MESA scholarly community can build a connective rather than comparative approach to our regional histories. By what means can historians of Afghanistan (and the Middle East) use existing studies as more than points of comparison but points of integration? Observing the intertextuality between my sources and those of other historians, how can we build a more integrated body of scholarship, using archives but also new forms of analyzing and compiling historical data? What are the limitations in doing so?
The teaching of the Pashto language in North America stretches back to the Cold War era when various US government agencies developed active political, security, and educational interests in Pashtun homelands, such as Afghanistan. The first publicly known pedagogical Pashto program developed by a US-based government agency was in the 1980s when the Center for Applied Linguistics–an office within the US Department of Education–developed and published “a set of materials to teach the Pashto language to English speakers.” This “set of materials” included two textbooks (Beginning Pashto and Intermediate Pashto), a Pashto Reader, a cassette-tape Pashto Conversation, and a Pashto-English Glossary. After the events of 9/11 and the subsequent American military intervention in Afghanistan, during the so-called War on Terror, the teaching of Pashto language to non-Pashto speakers became “critical” in the United States, and Pashto was actively taught at major language programs at American universities.
In this roundtable, I will discuss the old challenges and new opportunities of teaching Pashto in North America, drawing on my own experience and the information available from other university and non-university based language programs, where Pashto language is taught on a regular and irregular basis. Indeed, teaching Pashto language in one of the oldest “area studies” departments has allowed me to observe a number of challenges and possibilities that exist for offering and teaching Pashto language to non-Pashto speakers. My remarks will focus on a brief introduction of various Pashto language programs currently in operation inside and outside the US governmental and university departments, specialist comments on the various Pashto textbooks developed for the teaching of Pashto language, the type of instructors teaching Pashto language, and the type of students taking Pashto language. I hope to use these observations and insights to prompt a critical conversation about the key challenges and opportunities that teachers and students of Pashto language face. Among the questions I will engage: What is there to learn about “areas studies” and language from the historical and contemporary relationship between governments and the teaching of Pashto inside and outside academia? What type of governmental and non-governmental resources are currently available in North America for the teaching and learning of Pashto language? By what means and how can a Pashto pedagogy be developed and offered outside the purview and “interest” of security states, security interests, and security concerns?
When it comes to the intellectual tradition of writing history within Afghanistan, notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” have served as dominant frames in historical research. The political stakes of who is “native” have framed how people write and read the past. For this reason, the historiography of Ghur and the Ghurid empire has been subject to many disputes and conflicts. In my roundtable contribution I will invite a reflection on the possibilities of writing heterogeneous and locally-grounded histories of Afghanistan through a discussion of my own work and experiences assembling materials to study Afghanistan’s history, broadly, and the history of Ghur, specifically.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Ghuris formed a large empire that included parts of present-day Iran to all of Afghanistan and large parts of northern India. They played an influential role in the transfer of Islamic culture and civilization to North India. As such, there are rich and varied sources for apprehending their history. These sources include the manuscripts left from the life of the ordinary people of Ghur and architectural remains, such as Minar-e Jam in Ghur, Qutb Minar in Delhi and Jame Mosque in Herat.
I will also discuss the Afghanistan Manuscript Analysis Project, part of the Invisible East programme at Oxford University, currently analyzing and reviewing a number of manuscripts that reflect the lives of ordinary people in the 11th and 12th centuries in central Afghanistan. In the first step, the documents are re-read, and then the documents are translated into English, and a dictionary is made for the names of places and people.
Finally, in Ghur, a few professionals and amateur historians and anthropologists are studying and documenting the history of architecture, clothes, food, customs, literature, and language of the people of Ghur. One of the results of this local ethnographic studies initiative by independent Ghuri intellectuals was the Persian publication of Shenasnama Ghur or Ghur Gazetteer in 2020.
Introducing and describing these sources and methods for researching the historical region of Ghur will offer a chance to raise a broader set of questions about history writing in and on Afghanistan: For whom do we write and produce history? What are the material resources required by local researchers documenting and preserving their cultural heritage? How can academics in the global North think and work with local researchers, practically and theoretically, to meaningfully contribute to the field?
In Afghanistan, in recent decades, literary historians have paid more attention to poetic and verse trends than prose works. One of the neglected but popular streams of Persian prose in the 19th century was the stream of Naqshbandi Sufi Manaqib writings. Writing Manaqib has a long history in Persian or Islamic literature, but in this period in Afghanistan, from Badakhshan to Kabul, or from Qandahar to Herat, but especially in the 19th century region of Herat, Manaqibs were written aligned with and even sometimes in service of political power. These works, while perhaps having low literary quality, have two main features, which represent understudied or neglected areas in the historiography of 19th century Afghanistan. One is the deep politicization of manaqib writings. The second is their sectarianism, as they often invoke social and religious conflicts, for example, between Sunni and Shia communities.
In my contribution to the roundtable, I will introduce and highlight a few Persian manaqib works produced in Herat in the 19th century, which deal with the greatness and inferiority of different habits of several distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi saints. In doing so, I will examine these literary and historical works' social context, the literary-intertextual impacts they had on each other as a genre of praise writings, and the use of political power towards its goals. I will use my specialist insights on the manaqib writing in 19th century Herat to engage with my colleagues and attendees regarding the following questions:
1) What is the literary - historiographical context of manaqib writings in 19th century Persian literature in Afghanistan and in Herat in particular?
2) Why does Sufism lose religious tolerance in this period in Herat compared to the previous periods?
3) What are the indications of material and spiritual alignment of Sufism and Sufis with political power in manaqibs in Herat?